The last three blogs were about prayer. I talked about praying to images and icons, then explored the “to whom” we pray, and finally the purpose of prayer. Now I would like to cover rule-following and transcendent love. I will cover the true reason for obedience to God, why we follow rules, and nature and purpose of transcendent love.
I want to begin with obedience. There is something important about this in every one of our lives—and especially in response to a command such as, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” or “love your enemies and pray for them,” or “do not covet,” or even the more personal commands God gives us.
Obedience to God is not found in mere conformity to religious rules, behaviors, rituals, practices or morality—either to please God or to control Him.
The key reason for true obedience isn’t to try to control God, but to deepen our loving relationship with Him. As we become more responsive to Him, we move as He moves. As we move with Him, we know Him better and better. There are exceptions, but obedience to God is less like a soldier carrying out orders from on high, and more like a dance where He leads and we follow.
In the secular culture, obedience to the rules is how we receive approval, and punishment is how we control those who will not willingly comply. We are approved based on the measure of our conformance to the rules.
This is true in Christian churches and in all religions. We do things a certain way because the leaders and tradition tell us to, and if we don’t, we are politely ignored, marginalized, shunned, talked about, berated or put out. When we conform, we receive approval and acceptance; when we don’t, its disapproval and rejection. Countries, cities, tribes, social organizations, religions, cultures, gangs, families and institutions of all kinds use this to define who they are, and to enforce that definition on members.
In Genesis 2, Adam is given one rule for living in the Garden of Eden: Don’t eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. One rule given, one rule violated.
After the Fall (the violation of the first rule), God gave additional rules to human beings. These rules were useful in the growing up of humans in helping us understand right from wrong, as parents or teachers do with children. These rules include the Ten Commandments, and another 603 rules throughout the Old Testament: a total of 613.
The Pharisees also followed what is called the “Oral Law,” said to have also been given at Sinai by God along with the Ten Commandments, and intended to help them follow the 613 rules in all manner of circumstances, and with specific methods of application and interpretation, all to deal with the problem of the creatures (us) disobeying the Creator. The oral law was their means to fit God’s desires for us to the practical and varying circumstances of everyday life. In that sense, it was not a rigid and unreasonable application of rules, but a nuanced and careful effort to be wisely and humanely obedient.
But Jesus deeply understood that there was much more to human life than simply trying to apply rules to govern behavior. This is a key to who Jesus is, and who we are called to be as His followers.
The transcendent love of God pours through us into the world we occupy. Simple obedience to the rules—which just by themselves cannot work—is insufficient to the task, even when they rest on moral and ethical behavior.
God’s concern is always about love, always about loving relationships, always about building up and not harming. He seeks holiness from us, for He is holy. That holiness is His nature, and it requires love from us. His concern is not about the mere fulfillment of ritual obligations, or the following of law. Here’s how Paul explained it:
So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law. … For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace. But we who live by the Spirit eagerly wait to receive everything promised to us who are right with God through faith. For when we place our faith in Christ Jesus it makes no difference to God whether we are circumcised or not circumcised [that is, whether we have followed the ritual rules]. What is important is faith expressing itself in love. You were getting along so well. Who has interfered with you to hold you back from following the truth? It certainly isn’t God, for he is the one who called you to freedom. Galatians 5:1, 4-8, NLT First Edition
I don’t know about you, but this is very scary to me. It is much easier for me to try to follow, apply and impose rules all the time. And the rules were there for a reason. They helped us understand right from wrong. But the true love that allows us to live as God desires requires transcendence. And it calls us to freedom.
That transcendence is given to us in the simple command, “Love God” and in the simple application, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” When we do this we have fulfilled the law, we have transcended the law, and we have been set free by transcendent love.
Love is transcendent because it comes from the Source of our creation, and it approaches people and circumstances with a heavenly view, not just a worldly one. Where the Pharisee saw a prostitute, Jesus saw a woman needing the love of God; where those who would stone an adulteress saw the Law violated, Jesus gave freedom from condemnation. Where others saw a despised tax collector, or a Samaritan, or a blind man, or a demon-possessed man, or sick or dead, Jesus saw His beloved children, and His love brushed aside the judgments of men, invaded this kingdom of earth and its laws (including even the laws of time and space), and revealed the transcendent love of the Kingdom of God.
It is to this that we are called.